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by Michael Fairbrother and Dr. Jessica Whitley

What is Self-regulation?

Self-regulated learning is a process that assists students in managing their thoughts, behaviours, and emotions in order to successfully navigate their learning experiences (Zumbrunn, Tadlock, & Roberts, 2011). According to Canadian researcher, Shanker (2012), “self-regulation refers to a child’s ability to deal with stressors effectively and efficiently and then return to a baseline of being calmly focused and alert” (p. 5).

According to many researchers (for e.g., Alexander, Entwistle, & Kabbani, 2001, and O’Shaughnessy et al., 2003) self-regulation (SR) is “absolutely critical for school readiness” (Blair & Diamond, 2008, p. 906) and is often linked with meta-cognition. SR and meta-cognition are related but differing constructs. Whereas metacognition has to do with knowledge and awareness of one’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses, SR is the process that creates the conditions to guide this thinking: “the ability to regulate one’s cognitive activities, underlies the executive processes and functions associated with metacognition” (Montague, 2008, p. 37).

For those students entering school without strong SR skills, early intervention and instruction are essential. These students as a group are more likely to become increasingly resistant to school work, school in general and self-investment in school, resulting in a greater likelihood of dropping out (Blair & Diamond, 2008). Rimm-Kaufman, Pianta and Cox’s (2001) analysis of the National Center for Early Development and Learning’s Transition Practices Survey (1996) sampling kindergarten teachers across the United States found that 50% of their students were experiencing difficulties that limited their abilities to learn and that most difficulties dealt with SR: “particularly problems with following directions and controlling attention” (Blair & Diamond, 2008, p. 899).

Developing SR skills in students is not easy. It requires that teachers help students learn how to actively monitor their own thinking, to pause and check when needed, and to make their own decisions as they are engaged in their learning activities (Westwood, 2003). It is widely held view that many learning problems are a result of students’ lack of metacognitive skill/ability: “For self-regulated learning to develop teachers need to demonstrate convincingly how to use appropriate strategies, explain in ways that students can understand, and make frequent and consistent use of metacognition and strategy training in all parts of the school curriculum” (Westwood, p. 63).


General Features of Self-Regulation

There has been an explosion of research on SR over the last decade connected to various domains that affect students’ abilities to focus and achieve optimal learning in academic and social situations (Shanker, 2013). Zimmerman (1990) described self-regulated students as “distinguished by their systematic use of metacognitive, motivational, and behavioral strategies; by their systematic use of metacognitive, motivational, and behavioral strategies; by their responsiveness to feedback, regarding the effectiveness of their learning; and by their self-perceptions of academic accomplishment” (p. 14).

Domains of Self-regulation

Shanker (2013) explored SR through five domains (biological, emotional, cognitive, social, and prosocial) which can be helpful in conceptualizing SR:

  • The biological domain relates to the level of energy in the human nervous system;
  • the emotional domain is related to positive and negative feelings;
  • the cognitive domain consists of the mental processes required for taking in and being able to use information: memory, attention, acquisition and retention of information and problem solving;
  • the social domain relates to the child’s ability to use social cues to act in an appropriate manner and is also known as social intelligence; and
  • the prosocial domain represents how individuals act with others in their environment and ability to promote positive social connections, friendship and empathy.

The list of elements related to each domain represents what students would present with if they reached optimal levels of SR (see Table 1). When students are not at these levels, it can be challenging for educators to optimize students’ learning.

self-regulation chart

Click here to access this list.

How Self-regulation Affects Learning

Creating a Nurturing Classroom Environment (Shanker, 2013) citing recent research, suggests that student academic success can be predicted based on their ability to self-regulate (Shanker, 2013 citing Blair & Diamond, 2008; Duckworth & Seligman, 2005). Many students lacking SR skills tend to have learning challenges that persist through their school years, and Bodrovan and Leong (2005) remark that children unable to self-regulate at age four will likely have difficulties following teacher directions at age six. It is a myth believed by many educators that these children are immature and will grow out of their impulsive behaviours; not only will students not learn or develop SR skills on their own but they will have more opportunities to practice dysregulating behaviours (Bodrovan & Leong, 2005, Shanker, 2013)[1]. Other myths include attributing lack of SR skills to conditions such as ADHD, and believing that dysregulating behaviours cannot be changed.

It is suggested that even when teachers are covering the curriculum at an appropriate pace, one factor that may contribute to many students not being able to process it efficiently is their inability to effectively self-regulate: they may be not paying attention, are unable to follow instructions, and may have a hard time remembering what they just heard (Bodrovan & Leong, 2005). Often these are the same children that have trouble building relationships with classmates. These difficulties result in teachers “spending more time on classroom management than teaching” (p.55).

Tips for Educators

As a teacher, focusing first on the biological domain sets the stage for learning by helping students be better prepared (Shanker, 2013) Addressing environmental variables that could cause students to be overly aroused adds an important calming element in the classroom. It is recommended that teachers reduce the stressors causing over arousal among students. The following table lists some suggestions for implementing classroom management strategies that may improve SR (see Table 2).

 Enhancing the Classroom Environment  Classroom Management
  • Limit extraneous visual material (bright commercially made borders and posters, mobiles)
  • Keep clutter to a minimum
  • Cover bottom of desk and chair legs with tennis balls if floors are uncarpeted
  • Arrange classroom so that noise making activities are in one corner and quiet activities are in another
  • Use a rubber strip along bottom of door to reduce hallway noise
  • Avoid use of noisy fans; have computers off when not using
  • Use natural light as much as possible
  • Plan seating adaptations that help students to remain calm and focused (e.g., using disc cushions for students with sensory-integration issues, allowing fidget toys at desks)
  • Provide quiet, calming areas where children can go when they need to down-regulate so that they can focus and be attentive
  • Try to reduce auditory distractions by using chimes or music rather than school bells or buzzers to signify transitions
  • Keep classroom schedule predictable to help students anticipate transitions throughout the day
  • Consider using fidget toys, exercise bands, or worry beads to help students stay calmly focussed and alert
  • Take time to observe class over several days; note times when a number of students have trouble transitioning from learning event to another
  • From student observations note those who experience hypo- or hyperarousal more often and for longer periods than peers; keep track of triggers and consider where to make modifications making it easier to self-regulate
  • Provide activities that allow for student choice
  • Make your self-regulation techniques obvious to your students using age-appropriate vocabulary to help them understand and internalize concept of self-regulation
  • Try to establish a connection between students’ parents and caregivers  so there is continuity between strategies used in and outside of the classroom
Table 2: Strategies for Enhancing Classroom Environment and Improving Classroom Management (adapted from Shanker, 2013)

General Instructional Techniques

Instructional strategies for promoting development of academic skills across the curriculum can easily incorporate those focused on developing SR. The following list of instructional strategies were compiled from Mason (2013) and Montague (2007):

  • Model use of SR strategies in context of the subject you are teaching
  • Have students verbally rehearse SR strategies before applying them
  • Provide self-recording cards, cue cards, or prompt sheets to remind students of the instructions or questions they need to use as they complete the task
  • Have students self-regulate aloud until they become comfortable with the routine and are successful in completing the task accurately
  • Provide a visual record of successes (e.g., a graph to document improvement over time)
  • Fade cues and prompts as students become more competent in using SR

In general, if instruction focuses on teaching strategies such as self-instruction, self-questioning, self-evaluation, and self-reinforcement, SR instruction is being implemented. When it is done effectively, SR will “guide learners as they apply processes within and across domains, and regulate their application and overall performance of a task” (Montague, 2008, p. 37).

Sampling of Research Findings

A Whole Class Approach

Souvignier and Mokhlesgerami (2006) were interested in the connection between teaching and using SR skills alongside strategy instruction for developing reading comprehension. Participants were 20 fifth-grade classes with 593 students in total (297 girls and 296 boys with a mean age of 11 years).
Students were divided into three treatment groups and one control group:

  1. (Strat) received instruction in using cognitive and metacognitive reading strategies with lessons for practicing the strategies;
  2. (Strat + CSR) cognitive and metacognitive reading strategies along with aspects of cognitive (CSR) aspects of self-regulation instruction for regulating their reading process;
  3.  (MSR + Strat + CSR) cognitive and metacognitive reading strategies, CSR, and motivational (MSR) aspects for  self-regulating their reading process; and
  4. general language arts reading instruction.

All groups received twenty, forty-five-minute sessions. Results show that short-term gains in reading comprehension were largest for the second group (Strat + CSR) over the other three groups. However, on a year-end standardized reading comprehension test, the third experimental group (MSR + Strat + CSR) was the only group to outperform the control group, suggesting that a complete program incorporating cognitive and motivational aspects to self-regulated reading instruction lead to longer term gains in reading comprehension.

Teaching SR Skills for Students with Learning Disabilities and Difficulties to Learn Math Strategically

Research demonstrates that secondary students with, or at-risk for, LDs in math struggle with using developed problem-solving strategies, are unclear on the purpose of math as a field of study, and see math as a topic “requiring memorization and rote learning or application of algorithms” (Butler, Beckingham, & Novak Lauscher, 2005, p. 159). Butler et al. hypothesized that students that are taught strategies to learn more independently in the learning assistance classroom would be more likely to transfer these skills to general classroom instruction. Butler et al.’s case study research with three grade 8 students in an urban Canadian city indicated that students with LDs and learning difficulties can improve efficacy and abilities in math when taught to use SR strategies for approaching their math work. The three students were all close to 13 years old, were female, were of average intelligence but performing well below grade level in mathematics and were enrolled in a learning assistance classroom.

The students were taught math using Strategic Content Learning (SCL) to help develop SR skills for promoting independent strategic learning. SCL has shown to support self-regulated learning for post-secondary students and previous research has shown “positive gains associated with SCL intervention … across studies in students’ task performance, metacognitive knowledge about tasks and strategies, and self-perceptions of competence” (Butler et al., 2005, p. 159).

There are four principles of SCL that, when taken together, “suggest that mathematics instruction for students with LDs should promote students’ self-directed learning and problem solving in pursuit of important curricular goals” (p. 160). The principles are as follows[2]:

  1. Support for self-regulated learning should be integrated into instruction, not taught separately
  2. Teachers should recognize that students are active interpreters whose interpretation of information mediates what they learn
  3. Learning in math should result from guided (re)construction
  4. Academic work should be framed as an opportunity for collaborative problem-solving in pursuit of a clearly defined goal

Findings demonstrated that the three students, one with LDs and two with math difficulties, were able to integrate self-regulated learning into mathematics instruction due to guided and explicit SR and strategy instruction. Students developed strategies for interpreting math problems, and developed cognitive and strategies for solving math problems and for learning from materials. They were also able to improve their organizational skills.

Self-regulation and Mathematics Problem Solving for Students with Learning Disabilities

In a study conducted by Jitendra, Hoff and Beck (1999), four students with mathematics learning disabilities (2 boys, 2 girls in grade 6 and 7 working at an early third-grade level) were able to develop their problem-solving skills using an SR technique. The students were introduced to schema strategy instruction for one-step then two-step word problems and compared to a control group working at a similar grade level in math. Instruction took place in a resource room. Students in the treatment group received explicit instruction in rulesschema strategy modellingguide practice, monitoringcorrective feedback and independent practice. For schema strategy training students were taught to distinguish the unique features of each problem type: schemata diagrams were provided for mapping features of story situation, instruction was explicit and modelled correct story mapping with guided practice for applying each strategy step along with frequent opportunities to exchange understanding with peers.

Once instruction for one-step word problems were understood, a second phase of training began for two-step word problems. Dependent measures were word problems tests (six one-step and four two-step problems requiring addition and subtraction operations with three different problem types). Students were also asked to rate students’ perceptions of strategy effectiveness, acceptability, and satisfaction in word solving problems and student’s ability to use schematic strategies was assessed by examining the use of diagram mapping and application of taught rules on students’ work sheets.

In comparison to the control group, the four students receiving strategy instruction out-performed them on one-step questions and were comparable on two-step questions. It was found that the 4 students in the treatment group answered more one- and two-step questions on post-tests compared to their baseline tests and applications of incorrect operations decreased. Following instruction on one-step word problems, the performance of the students increased by a mean of 43%. When inquiring into student strategy use, the authors remarked that at pre-instruction the students did not use any strategies but following strategy instruction all four students consistently used diagramming to map information, and that more diagramming was attempted for more complex questions. Finally, students stated that learning the strategies was a positive experience and agreed that they would recommend using these strategies to their peers.

Challenges to Classroom Implementation, Research-to-Practice Issues

  • For students with LDs and other diagnoses, SR skills may be difficult to generalize to other situations (beyond the context where initially learned)
  • Much of the research on SR described instruction occurring outside the general education classroom within a resource room in smaller groups
  • SR requires teacher skills in strategy instruction, implying professional development and ongoing support from a specialist to ensure implementation of strategy instruction with fidelity
  • The time to effectively implement in a classroom is substantial and there are competing pressures to fulfil curriculum

Relevant Resources on the LD@school Website

Click here to access the article Cognitive Conditions and Self-Regulated Learning.

Click here to access the article Combining Writing and Self-Regulation Strategies: The SRSD Approach.

Where to learn more (recommended sites to peruse and important articles to read):

  1. The Alert Program is a commercial site but does offer links to a number of areas discussing SR and working with students with specialized needs. Click here to access the website.
  2. Shanker, S. (2010). Self-regulation: Calm, alert, and learning. Education Canada, 50(3), 4-7. This is a great introductory article that describes self-regulation and provides classroom-based examples of self-regulation in action.
  3. Tools of the Mind is a research-based program combining transformational early childhood pedagogy with an innovative curriculum that helps young children to develop the cognitive, social-emotional, self-regulatory, and foundational academic skills they need to succeed in school and beyond. Click here to access the website.
  4. MindUP™ is a research-based training program for educators and children. This program is composed of 15 lessons based in neuroscience. Students learn to self-regulate behaviour and mindfully engage in focused concentration required for academic success. Click here to access the program.


Alexander, K., Entwisle, D., & Kabbani, N. (2001). The dropout process in life course perspective: Early risk factors at home and school. Teacher College Record Volume, 103(5), 760-822.

Blair, C., & Diamond, A. (2008). Biological processes in prevention and intervention: The promotion of self-regulation as a means of preventing school failure. Development and Psychopathology20, 899-911.

Bodrova, E., & Leong, D. (2005). Promoting student self-regulation in learning. Education Digest, 71(2), 54-57

Boekarts, M., & Cascallar, E. (2006). How far have we moved toward the integration of theory and practice in self-regulation? Educational Psychology Review18, 199-210.

Butler, D., Beckingham, B., & Novak Laushcher, H. (2005). Promoting strategic learning by eighth-grade students struggling in mathematics: A report of three case studies. Learning Disabilities Practice, 20(3), 156-174.

Duckworth, A.L., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Psychological Science, 16(2), 939-944.

Jitendra, A., Hoff, K., & Beck, M. (1999). Teaching middle school students with learning disabilities to solve word problems using a schema-based approach. Remedial and Special Education, 20(1), 50-64.

Mason, L. (2013). Teaching students who struggle with learning to think before, while, and after reading: Effects of self-regulated strategy development instruction. Reading and Writing Quarterly, 29, 124-144.

Montague, M. (2008). Self-regulation strategies to improve mathematical problem solving for students with learning disabilities. Learning Disability Quarterly, 31, 37-44.

National Center for Early Development and Learning (1996). Transitions practices survey. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina.

O’Shaungnessy, T., Lane, K., Gresham, F., & Beebe-Frankenberger, M. (2003). Children placed at risk for learning and behavioral difficulties: Implementing a school-wide system of early identification and intervention. Remedial and Special Education, 24(1), 27-35.

Rimm-Kaufman, Pianta, R., & Cox, M. (2001). Teachers’ judgements of problems in the transition to kindergarten. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, (15)2, 147-166.

Shanker, S. (2013). Calm, alert, and learning: Classroom strategies for self-regulation. Toronto, ON: Pearson.

Shanker, S. (2012). Report of the 2012 thinker in residence: Self-regulation. Subiaco, Western Australia: Commissioner for Children and Young People Western Australia. Retrieved from  http://www.self-regulation.ca/download/pdf_documents/Thinker%20in%20Residence%20report%202012.pdf

Souvignier, E., & Mokhlesgerami, J. Using self-regulation as a framework for implementing strategy instruction to foster reading comprehension. Learning and Instruction, 16, 57-71.

Westwood, P. Commonsense methods for children with special needs: strategies for the regular classroom. (4th ed). London: Routledge-Falmer, 2004. Eric. Web. 29, April, 2014.

Zimmerman, B. (1990). Self-regulated learning and academic achievement: An overview. Educational Psychologist, 25(1), 3-17.

Zumbrunn, S., Tadlock, J., & Roberts, E.D. (2011). Self-regulation and motivation: A review of the literature. Invited paper for the Metropolitan Educational Research Consortium, Richmond, VA.

Additional Resources

The CanLearn Society has developed the “Take Ten Spotlight Series: Strategies & Tools for Teaching Students with Learning Disabilities/ADHD”. Click here to visit the CanLearn Society website and click on the link to "Self-Regulation".

[1] Dysregulation: an impairment or interruption pf a regulatory system that interferes with a child’s ability to regulate him or herself in a domain (Shanker, 2013, p. 159).

[2] Principles directly quoted and paraphrased from (Butler et al., 2005, pp. 159/160).

Michael Fairbrother is currently in his first year of a doctoral program at the Faculty of Education at the University of Ottawa. His concentration is in Teaching, Learning and Evaluation, and his research goals are primarily focused on bridging the gap between research and practice for elementary students at-risk for learning difficulties in reading. It is Fairbrother’s hope to contribute to the creation of an effective framework involving parents, teachers and all other stakeholders directly connected to the learning experiences of young students before and upon their entry to school. Before beginning his PhD at UofO, Fairbrother graduated from the University of British Columbia with a B.Ed. in general elementary instruction in 2006. Fairbrother completed his M.Ed. concentrating in Special Education in 2011. Fairbrother has seven years’ experience teaching grades three through seven and two years’ experience as a special education resource teacher in British Columbia public elementary schools.